The Family of God, by Cliff Kirkpatrick

Friends in the Covenant Network, it is great to be here!  While I have appreciated being with you often in my role as Stated Clerk, it is nice to be here not because of my role, but because I believe in the cause – because this is my family!

It is a special serendipity – or in Reformed perspective, a special providence – to be in St. Philip Presbyterian Church.  This was my church when we lived in Houston from 1972 to 1981, and it was a great community then – and now!  It was the church where our son was baptized, where we were nurtured in faith, and where we engaged this community on behalf of God’s justice.  In fact, it was in this church that I had the hardest job I ever had in church – teaching the four year old Sunday School in the classroom right down the hall.

I am particularly attracted by the theme of this year’s Covenant Conference, “We Are Family.”  Family is very important to me.  Some of you know how shameless I am about grandchildren (with good reason!).  They made it worth having the kids!  Our family has had a few rough patches over the years, but we are a source of great strength for one another.  We couldn’t make it without our family.  I also realize how important the family of the church is to me – both my local congregation and the broader family of the PCUSA.

The New Testament builds on this theme as it makes clear that we are adopted into the family of God and are thus sisters and brothers in Christ.  We are the “family of God,” and I want to preach on that theme tonight.  I realize what a special gift this wider family is especially this week when we celebrate all the saints that have shaped our lives.  I am wearing this beautiful rainbow stole tonight in memory of one of those great saints who is no longer with us, Howard Warren.  As many of you know, Howard has never been accused of being decent and orderly, but he was filled with the grace of God and a winning smile for all.  This stole is a reminder to me of that part of our family who like Howard have wrongly been forced to live on the margins of our church and of our mutual hope that these barriers will be removed, and soon!  I wear this stole in memory of Howard and in commitment that in God’s time (hopefully this year!), we as a Presbyterian family might take the steps we need to restore the family, so that all can truly be welcomed.

For me the church ecumenical is an especially significant part of my family.  Through this part of the family I have seen the power of the gospel cutting across all barriers to be a global family of God.  In so many places where there is great suffering and injustice – like the Sudan, Haiti, or Bangladesh – I have truly seen Jesus Christ in the “least of our sisters and brothers” and the incredible hope, faith, and faithfulness that they have in what have appeared to me to be hopeless situations.

This past summer was a time of special significance for my broader ecumenical family as we took an important step to make that global family – at least the Reformed part of it – more whole.  This summer the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was launched in   Grand Rapids, Michigan.  There we bonded together as two parts of the family long divided between “evangelicals” and “ecumenicals” (represented in two global organizations, the Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches)– to be a communion together.  It was truly a global version of our yearning for that kind of reconciliation in PCUSA.

We gathered In Grand Rapids because that is where this movement toward reconciliation started.  In February, 2006 we were invited to Calvin College, in the middle of the winter, to see if those of us who had been divided for half a century in the Reformed movement could find new ways to cooperate with one another.  I wondered, “Can anything good come out of Grand Rapids – particularly in a blizzard in February?”  Like so many dialogues in PCUSA, I feared that we would all affirm the core faith we have in common, but that our efforts would soon break down when it got specific.  However, my fears soon proved to be baseless.

It blew my mind!  The delegates from the global south came with a very different perspective.  As one signaled early, “God doesn’t call us to cooperate but to be one.”  They pointed out that the division between “ecumenicals” and “evangelicals” was a Western invention, growing out of the enlightenment and the modern era, of which we need to let go.  In their context, it was crystal clear that God calls us to be both.  The problem is not that we have too much evangelism or too much social action.  We don’t have enough of either!  We need both!

They knew full well the costs of division (they have plenty among themselves!), but they also knew that God intends for us to find a better way- together.  We were reminded that diversity is not a problem but a gift – and that we are called to model to the world what it means to be the family of God – and not the dysfunctional family of God.  The devil was indeed in the details, but four years later (that is rapid time for Reformed Christians), we were back in Grand Rapids pledging to one another not to be an alliance, but a communion; a family of God together across all the barriers that divide our world.

For the tradition which is the one most likely of all in the world to split, this coming together in one communion was an incredible witness to all,  of our call to be the family of God together.  It was an affirmation of our diversity, and a pledge to belong to one another.    It was a witness that the painful divisions in the Anglican Communion (and of many between North and South) are not destiny.  I am exceedingly glad the Reformed family is making a witness for a better way and hope our churches will as well.

This is exactly the dream the Apostle Paul had for the Galatians – not to be divided by the law but united by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  For Paul the law is not unimportant.  He reminded the Galatians that we had been guarded under the law until faith came and that the law served as our disciplinarian.  However, through faith we have become children of God and welcomed into an unusual but life giving family, guided by grace and relationships and not just rules.

We are not a small, homogeneous family.  Those days are over with the coming of Christ as we now include brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts from every race and tongue and nation (and sexual orientation) and from the uttermost parts of the world.  We are a multicultural, multilingual, multi-generational family made up of people we would have never chosen ourselves but whom God has chosen and we are called to be family together.  Paul makes it clear that this family is one where all the human barriers that have divided us from one another and that have been used to oppress one another are to come down in the family to which Christ invites us.  We are to be a model of the reconciled world that God intends for all humanity.

In New Testament times there were the three primary barriers that were plaguing the world, barriers between:

  • Jews or Greeks – based on ethnic and religious differences
  • Slave or Free – found between the rich and poor/ the ruler and ruled
  • Male and female-based on gender and gender identity

For Paul it was crystal clear that racial justice, economic justice, and gender justice are the hallmarks of God’s intention for world.  And these realities still divide our world – and our church – today.  In fact, they are all getting worse in our day.  If you ever needed proof of that, none is more convincing than what we have seen in the recent political season.

In a world facing these divisions and injustices, Galatians 3: 28 is incredible good news with its promise that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has called Galatians 3:28 “God’s egalitarian manifesto,” and it has served as the foundation of the church’s ministry for justice from New Testament times to today.  It is a powerful social vision.  While this is indeed God’s vision for the world, it is first and foremost God’s vision for the church.  It is the foundation of our polity for a life together in Christ.

It was not necessarily the lived reality of the New Testament church, where the divisions of the world at that time were the divisions and injustices in the church.  But Galatians 3:28 was a powerful vision to challenge them – and us – to authentic Christian living.  As I deal with the contrast between vision and reality in the Bible, I have been helped by a comment from Roland Bainton many years ago.   Bainton reminded us seminary students that the gift of the Bible is not its practices but principles and its vision of God’s way in the world, which were often far ahead of the living reality of the people of God.  Passages like Micah 6, the Beatitudes, the Jubilee passages, and I Corinthians 13 are visions far from being a living reality, but challenges God has made to us to transcend our context and live out the values of the reign of God.  Bainton often remarked that we will need many lifetimes and many cultures for these principles and visions to come to fruition.  This is certainly true of Galatians 3:28 – but this may be just the time that God is calling us to make it come alive.

Its message is that for Christians our differences lose their power to oppress and divide; rather our differences become that wonderful diversity that complements one another as we are united in the cause of Christ.  This vision is expressed so well in biblical image of the body of Christ.  The only identification that counts is baptism in Christ.  Our witness is to live as if these barriers have been removed and to strive to make them disappear from our world.

This is a message that speaks in powerful ways to our world and our church,  that are paradoxically and at the same time, both more connected together and more divided than ever.

  • We have technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and Wikileaks that make it hard to keep secrets, but we are still often isolated from one another.
  • We live in a multicultural, multi-religious, multilingual world that is unmatched since Pentecost.  Within 10 miles of here are people of every race, tongue and nation.  Yet we are more divided than ever, and the divisions of our time are destroying our future as wars of Jihad and wars on terror make so clear.
  • We live in a society of incredible wealth, where there is enough for everyone.  It is a world of wealth that none could have imagined 100 years ago.  And yet, there is, nevertheless, incredible poverty with the widest gap between the rich and the poor ever known in the history of the world – and a bottom billion who are starving to death.  Both some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest in our world live in the same 10 mile radius from here.
  • We live in a world where there are old immigrants (like most of us) and new immigrants that are here by the millions in Houston – but where we are building walls that make Berlin look like “child’s play” and rounding up those who don’t look like us so that we can turn back the clock.
  • We celebrate new opportunities for women in church and society – yet witness a rising tide of domestic violence and a transfer of prejudice and oppression to those of differing sexual orientations.
  • We have a church more diverse than ever – yet our congregations are more homogenous than ever: made up of people of the same race, same theological orientation, and same economic level.  Sunday morning at 11:00 am is still the most segregated hour of the week.

In such a world as this what a gift it is to have the promise that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”   We are being called to embrace this vision not as a threat but as a gift and to live our lives in its freedom.

There is a wonderful phrase that captures this vision from our Book of Order.  It states that “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.”   (This stuff will preach!)  This same vision is expressed another way in Covenant Network’s vision for “a church as generous and just as God’s grace.”

Our world is hungry for communities:

  • that demonstrate the love God intends for the world.
  • That welcome all people regardless of race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation – both as members and as officers.
  • That are connected not only with our kind but also with the broader family of God in our neighborhood and across the world.
  • That build bridges and not barriers to people of other faiths.
  • That approach the world with hope that we can indeed by “one in Christ….that the world might believe.”

This family of God is as crazy a quilt as many of our families with its version of a strange uncle Ben, a crazy cousin Susie, precocious grandchildren like my Amara and Caroline, and even in-laws with unusual sounding names like Jorge or Mohammad).  Our families when they are functioning:

  • Feud with one another – but also being deeply connected with one another.
  • Stand together when it is important
  • Are renewed when we gather around the table (as many will do in a few weeks at Thanksgiving) and as we will do here in a few minutes.

God is calling us to build our communities and our lives as open communities where all are welcomed and our only intolerance should be toward efforts to exclude those who are different.  This spirit has been one of the great gifts of the Covenant Network over the years.  We have always sought to broaden the circle but never to exclude others from it.  We have carried out our prophetic ministry with kindness and with a view to restoring the wholeness of the family of God.

This spirit is needed now more than ever!  Things like G-6.0106b will end (hopefully this year!), but the struggle to be a truly inclusive, grace filled, justice seeking family of God must always be our goal.

I want to close with proverb from Africa that expresses the heart of this call.  A friend and colleague of mine, Sam Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist shared this piece of African wisdom when he was installed as General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.  It goes like this.  “If you need to go fast, go alone.  But if you need to go far, go together.”

The point is that if the road is straight, if there are no obstacles, if you have been this way many times before, and if you want to get there in a hurry, the last thing you need is that great Presbyterian invention, the committee!  The best and quickest way to get there is to go alone.

However, if the way is complicated, if you have never been there before, if there are snares and difficulties along the way, and if the prize at the end of the journey is great, you are best advised to go together with fellow travelers together.  Friends, we live in just such complicated times filled with incredible challenges and diversity, and God has given us each other to be strength for the journey.  God is indeed calling us to go far in the cause of Christ together – as one people, celebrating our great diversity of gifts, but sharing in a common journey along the way of Christ for the world.

May God bless us all as we seek to go far together in the cause of Christ!  Amen.

A sermon on Galatians 3:23-29,  by Cliff Kirkpatrick
Preached at the 2010 Covenant Conference
November 5, 2010
St. Philip Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

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